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Too Much Information? Here’s What to Do

Nov. 12, 2015
Is your brain about to explode from too much information input? Mine is. It is one of the hazards of living in today’s so-called information society....

Is your brain about to explode from too much information input? Mine is. It is one of the hazards of living in today’s so-called information society. It is what it is. Having an abundance of information is a positive thing, but it has some negative consequences. And there are ways to deal with it, or so I have discovered.

I first heard of the info overload problem in Alvin Toffler’s 1970 book Future Shock. Then later I read about it in John Naisbitt’s 1982 book Megatrends. Another great source on the subject is Richard Wurman’s 1989 book Information Anxiety. And there have been others. But all say essentially the same thing: We are buried in information and simply cannot process it all. As Naisbitt put it: “We are drowning in information but starved for knowledge.”  After all these years, we are still in this state.

The amount of information at our disposal has been increasing exponentially since the printing press was invented. Practically every technological development since then has added to the glut of data conveniently and affordably available to us. The copy machine is a great example.  Then along came the computer. In parallel with that have been the communication technologies like the telegraph, telephone, radio, TV, fax machines, satellites, fiber optics, the Internet, and all the wireless technologies that allow the information to be quickly and easily distributed. We live in a constant blizzard of information. Newspapers, magazines, newsletters, radio, TV, the Internet, blogs, white papers, webinars, YouTube, social media, and what have I left out? What more can we pile on? This blog is also part of the mix.

The worst offender is email. We all basically agree on this. It is useful, of course, and we have come to regard it as necessary. But it is one of the greatest time wasters and productivity-killing inventions of all time. Practically all of us have this problem. It serves its purpose of communications, but adds a disproportional amount of distraction and irrelevance that feed on our attention. Get control of your email and you are well on your way to overcoming a major part of your info glut.

Having access to so much information is a good thing, right?  Yes, but….  All of us, having enjoyed and benefited from the vast resources of the Internet, are thankful. Yet too much information has its downside. When there are too many choices, we get analysis paralysis. We delay decisions or make poor ones. Having too much—and often conflicting­—information is sometimes worse than minimum or no information at all. The brain just cannot clarify, prioritize, internalize, categorize, or process large amounts of information without help.

So what’s the solution? Here is what I do. It is not the ultimate solution, but it helps. My formula is Filter, Focus, and Forget.

Filter all your inputs if you can. Spam filters are an example. Simply eliminate any inputs that are not relevant by whatever means. Concentrate on what you need to know and less on the nice-to-know.

One of the best ways to filter is to focus. Only accept inputs that are about what you are seeking. This means you need to set goals. What are your specific info objectives? What do you really need to know or learn? Write your goals down and be specific. Then only look for what you want and need. When you set specific goals, you energize your reticular activating system (RAS). This is the part of your brain that lets you zero in on your specific needs and ignores the rest. Try this out and see how well it works.

The Forget solution is simply to ignore some inputs. Stop reading the paper. Stop watching TV news. Delete irrelevant emails the instant they show up without opening. Believe me, you will never miss them. Figure out what else you can ignore. This strategy is a real angst killer. It works.

Remember the whole goal of collecting information is to turn it into knowledge. Information is just data, facts, and figures. What’s in it for you unless you ultimately interpolate and translate that into real understanding. Knowledge is information that has been converted into some useful and valuable application. But how to do that is another story.

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